By the end of 2005, the European Union is expected to pass legislation that will mandate the use of carbon dioxide (CO2) as the refrigerant in vehicle heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems from 2011.

The current use of hydroflourocarbons, known as refrigerant R134a, will be completely phased out by 2018.

Visteon, among others, is continuing to work down the cost and complexity of the system, and to achieve "application ready" status before potential customers start handing out series contracts.

The first CO2 air conditioning system will appear in Europe in 2008. "There will be front runners [among the OEMs] looking to get the marketing benefits" of the new system, said Jörg Fröhling, a senior manager for climate control systems at Visteon.

Higher level of technology

Now known as refrigerant R744, CO2 has a very low global warming potential, and is easier to recycle than R134a. But compressors using CO2 operate at very high pressures, and liquid CO2 is corrosive, so new metal pipes, hoses and connectors are needed. An extra internal heat exchanger is also necessary to make the system fully effective.

"CO2 is a higher level of technology and there are more components required," said Nurdal Kücükkaya, European director of climate control systems at Visteon, so the new system will inevitably be more expensive to begin with. Dependent on the segment and volume of any application, Visteon executives expect CO2 systems to cost €50-€150 over the cost of a current HVAC system.

The cost to suppliers has also been significant: the major competitors - Behr, Delphi, Denso and Valeo - as well as Visteon, have all had CO2 systems under development for five or six years.

By the time the first new system appears, suppliers will have had the technology under development for almost 10 years.

"The investment is a risk you have to take, or you kick yourself out of the game," says Dr Wolfgang Schramm, the overall director of Visteon's $US4.5 billion climate control systems business.

Systems expected to appear in 2008 will be fitted to high-end models, where the on-cost can be more easily absorbed, and the most sophisticated versions of CO2 will offer more tangible consumer benefits. But despite the on-cost and potential threat to lower segment growth, "customers and consumers aren't going to back off" from installing CO2 systems in smaller, cheaper cars, said Kücükkaya.

Improved development process

The effort to develop lower cost CO2 systems reflects some process improvements that Visteon has implemented since becoming independent of Ford.

Using a fixed compressor, rather than variable compressor offers reduced performance, but the components are less expensive. The software needed to manage the system is simpler too, making it more suitable for more cost-conscious segments.

"We have to make sure we are working on a cost-effective solution," said Vivien Ronco, European communications director at Visteon.

The company is also leveraging its global network to reduce costs for CO2; crudely speaking, responsibility is split is as follows:

Japan/Asia - Lead on VA/VE work, continuous improvement, industrialisation and cost minimisation

Europe - Customer contact and consumer engineering: one step short of application engineering at present

North America -Competence in compressor design and manufacturing

The company has also developed a global benchmarking database for its computer aided engineering (CAE) processes. "The industry is based on benchmarking and target-setting," said Kücükkaya, "but we are one of the few suppliers with a structured benchmarking process."

Allied to rapid prototyping and test facilities that OEM customers hire out for their own purposes, Visteon can quickly work through design and material improvements.

SupplierBusiness.com